by Tom Dietz
The dark, gray clouds moving in from the west covered the setting sun, and heavy snow looked like it was imminent. My close friend and fishing partner Tom Keenan and I were drilling holes on a lake in Vilas county and excited about our first serious ice trip of the year. We were still setting up our tip-ups when suddenly Tom yelled “Flag” and we had our first walleye bite of the season. After a brief tussle, Tom hoisted out a beautiful 23″ walleye onto the ice. We proceeded to catch a number of other nice walleyes prior to calling it an evening. The deep sand grass pattern during first ice paid off once again!
I usually concentrate my tip-up placement in anywhere from 18 to 24 feet of water in bays or flats with deep sand grass present. I rig each tip-up with a three to four foot monofiliment leader, using 10 pound test with a thin diameter like Stren Magna-Thin, along with a barrel swivel to connect this leader to the 27lb. test tip-up line. I always use #10 or #8 VMC cone-cut treble hooks to assure solid hook ups. One split shot is placed about a foot above the live bait presentation, in this case sucker minnows hooked through the back.
I actually prefer 3 to 4 inch sucker minnows since they typically stay alive longer than golden shiners, and the walleyes seem to prefer this offering. I top off each of these tip-ups with tip-up lights, which are a definite must for fishing after dark. I usually stagger my tip up spread to cover a fairly wide area and variety of depths, once again from 18 to 24 feet down, and place each minnow approximately 18 inches off bottom. The reason the bait is this high off bottom is that the most aggressive walleyes will always be up higher than inactive fish, and they can easily spot this offering. There is also less of a chance that the bait will become fouled with weeds or sand grass. I typically use a line marker such as a minature bobber to mark my depth setting, to avoid having to reset the proper depth on the tip-up after every bite.
Regarding tip-ups, I use Frabill’s Pro-Thermal tip-ups most of the time, although I have been using their newer Lite-Bite tip-ups as of late. I really like the Pro-Thermal models, because they keep my holes ice free and ready for action when the bite happens to come along. The other neat thing with these is that they store extremely well, fitting perfect in my ice bucket for storage. The new Lite-Bite tip-ups are nice because they have a built in light source at the top of the flag, plus the flag sticks up high, which is crucial for later in the season with deeper snow cover.
Deep sand grass occurs in most deep, clear lakes that have bays that range in depth from 15 to 25 feet deep. This particular weed type often attracts small perch in the winter, a preferred forage for winter walleyes and northern pike. In fact, usually just prior to dark, I often catch numerous nice pike (and occasionally get bit off!) while fishing these same areas. If you hit these spots on a dark, overcast day, you can often catch pike here consistently, plus an occasional walleye. The walleyes usually move in at dawn and dusk, although on cloudy days they can be caught here, too. You can best locate these weed beds in the summer with your boat and electronics, then mark them on the lake map for winter use. However, a Vexilar flasher can also be used to find this weed type, and in a pinch, so can a clip-on depth finder lowered down to the lake floor. The most important thing is to keep moving until you locate the sand grass flats, then cover the area with your tip-ups accordingly.
These areas will hold walleyes all season long, but first ice is especially good. I recommend setting up well before dawn or dusk, in order to let the area calm down after the noise of the power auger stirs things up a bit. These clear water ‘eyes can be spooked easily, so stealth is critical to success. Give this pattern a try on a deep, clear walleye lake near you. I think you will like the results!
Tom Dietz is the President of Chapter 56 Southwest Ohio Chapter of Muskies, Inc. and the Store Manager of the Dayton, Ohio Gander Mountain store, and resides in Huber Heights, Ohio.He guides for muskies professionally in Ohio and competes in the PMTT Tournament Circuit each year.Tom is originally from Wisconsin, and has fished for muskies avidly since 1988.He has his own web site at www.tomdietz.com.